Nervous about the threat of devastating wildfires this fire season, a team of fire chiefs, forest managers and a Gila County supervisor met Thursday to discuss fire prevention and preparation.
High on their lists of concerns was the risk of pyrotechnics increasing the number of fires and injuries in Rim Country.
In December, a new law went into effect allowing Arizona residents to buy certain types of fireworks throughout the state.
The law stipulated that while the fireworks can be bought and sold, cities, towns and county governments could restrict their use.
This meant during times of high wildfire danger, towns could outlaw their use.
Most towns, including Payson, which is surrounded by a thick forest with plenty of dry tinder, moved quickly to permanently ban fireworks year-round.
The county has not passed such an ordinance.
On Thursday, Supervisor Tommie Martin said it was ridiculous to even discuss people using fireworks in the north end of the county, given the high fire danger.
However, firework sale tents are already being set up, so the county needs to do something to regulate their use.
Matt Bollinger, director of emergency services for Gila County, said although the county cannot ban the sale of fireworks, they could limit their use during fire season in the unincorporated areas.
One idea thrown around was banning firework use over the Fourth of July holiday, traditionally a high fire time.
Martin and Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch worried banning them during certain times could prove ineffective.
“You know people are going to violate it,” Hatch said.
On May 2, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from banning use of fireworks on private property and sales around Independence Day and New Year’s. Firework retailers had hoped the bill would pass so they could cash in on the holidays, when people typically use fireworks.
The veto is a huge win for towns.
Now the county needs to decide how it wants to regulate the use of fireworks.
While large scale fireworks are still outlawed, sparklers, fountains and other fireworks that don’t fly into the sky are allowed.
Hatch pointed out that sparklers are dangerous if misused.
“We have been fighting this legislation for 24 years,” he said. “This is not a good deal.”
Currently, the county has a draft of a fireworks ordinance, which it will discuss at a May 31 work session.
The ordinance would regulate fireworks in the county when there is a reasonable risk of wildfire and when the Forest Service prohibits open fires.
Lt. Tim Scott, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, said with or without an ordinance, people will still set them off.
The sheriff’s office is concerned about enforcement if there is an ordinance. With so much area to cover, they will run from call to call and without a witness to the crime, it is hard to arrest someone for setting fireworks off.
Hatch suggested the county wait a year on its ordinance to see how this fire season goes. Fire departments will track the number of fireworks-related injuries, fires and calls.
Mirroring the Forest Service
In the interim, the county can amend its current fire ordinance, which prohibits fires at the same time as the Forest Service.
“If the Forest Service is in stage one, so are we,” Martin explained.
Creating a new fireworks ordinance is not something the county will likely do “in this stage in the game.”
“We will probably add fireworks to the fire ordinance and match it that way,” she said. “Then people are not barred from using fireworks year-round, only during fire season.”
Fire chiefs at the meeting agreed with the decision.
“The fire departments agree that for the county this is the best thing to do,” Hatch said.
Any changes to the county’s ordinance will not affect the fact that fireworks cannot be used at anytime on national forests, federal or U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.